American Community Survey: Things You Should Know

man and woman writing down on notebook

image via:

Surveys have always been an important tool for our society. Since the first census in 1790, our legislators have changed and added a few things to better understand our communities and society as a whole, but the basic idea was always the same. We need information on our people in order to better serve them. The American Community Survey is an ongoing survey by the U.S. Census Bureau which gathers information previously confined to the decennial census that is held once every ten years.

What Is The American Community Survey?

two man sitting while talking

image via: pixabay

The American Community Survey is a survey that aims to collect data from our American communities in order to better write laws, allocate funding, and prepare for emergencies. It helps local officials, community leaders, and businesses understand the changes taking place in their communities.

The United States Constitution requires an enumeration of the population every ten years. This has been known as the decennial census, or the basic census, that has taken place every ten years since 1790. In 2005, however, the American Community Survey was inaugurated.  From the first census in 1790, legislators understood the importance of collecting basic demographic information beyond how many people were in each household.

James Madison was the first to propose adding questions in the census to enable communities to adapt to certain circumstances that may be unique to a community. He believed such knowledge collected with each census would be the best thing for the advancement of society. Since then the number and types of questions included in each census have reflected the shift in size and direction of the American society while filling the country’s growing data needs.

What Data Does It Collect?

hands of two person holding pen

image via: pixabay

The American Community Survey collects data about all sorts of things beyond the number of individuals in a household such as ancestry, educational attainment, income, language proficiency, migration, disability, employment, and housing characteristics.

Data Collection

The American Community Survey has an initial sample of approximately 3.5 million housing unit addresses and group quarters in the United States. They send a survey to about 295,000 addresses monthly, which works out to be 3.5 million in a full year. These addresses are chosen at random, and each household has a 1-in-480 chance of being selected in any given month, but no addresses are selected more than once every five years.

Data is collected by internet, mail, telephone, and in-person interviews. The in-person interviews are only implemented if a subject does not respond to the other methods like internet, mail, or phone. Most of the time households respond, and the in-person interviews are not needed.


Like the decennial surveys, the American Community Surveys are confidential. Every employee at the Census Bureau is required to take an oath of nondisclosure and is sworn for life not to disclose any personal or identifying information. Violations could result in a $250,000 fine and/or a 5 year prison sentence.

Also, under United States law, survey responses are immune from legal process, meaning the information you provide to the Census Bureau during a survey may not be used against you or in your favor as evidence in a court of law.

Data Availability

The Census Bureau releases data at different time periods. For example, current data releases include the one year estimates, supplemental estimates, and the five year estimates.

The one year estimates are available for areas with a population of at least 65,000 people. The estimates are released the year after being collected. They normally include all 50 states but only reach about a quarter of the country due to the 65,000 people threshold. The one year estimates are best for reviewing short-term changes of medium to large scale geographical areas.

The supplemental estimates are also annual, but this data is shown in tables summarizing populations for geographies with 20,000 or more people. It’s a bit more inclusive than the one year estimates and includes more of the areas with a smaller population.

The five year estimates are available for areas down to the block group scale. The block group refers to the smallest geographical unit used by the Census Bureau on the order of 600 to 3,000 people. The five year estimates become available the year after the fifth year of the survey time period.

Within the last ten years the American Community Survey has collected and supplied all data at local levels, which was a large breakthrough in the survey. This allows the American people more specialized and accurate data on a community level instead of having to pull from data collected over a larger area. This is also extremely beneficial to local governments when planning and financing. They have access to updated and accurate data concerning their region.

How To Access The Survey Data

American Community Survey estimates are available through a few different online data tools. The primary tool for examining the data is American Fact Finder (AFF), which allows users to get down to specific tables and geographies. QuickFacts also shows a selection of the most popular tables and data. Other tools include OnTheMap for Emergency Management, Census Business Builder, and My Congerssional District.

Why Is The American Community Survey Important?

man standing in front of couple

image via: pexels

Civil rights and community groups have been worried about the American Community Survey in the past. In 2011 stakeholders like these groups urged Congress to continue to provide adequate financial support to the U.S. Census Bureau in order to ensure the survey would continue to thrive. They argued that the reliable data for all geographic areas and populations was invaluable.

While the decennial census long form is important and mandated by the Constitution, it only provides a snapshot of the nation’s population count every ten years. The American Community Survey, on the other hand, measures the changing social and economic characteristics of the U.S. population, and all of the data is available the year after it is collected.

The Benefit To Congress

Congress has a tough job. Every year, they have to figure out how to best allocate billions of dollars of federal funds throughout the nation. Without the American Community Survey, they would be guessing as to how the year-to-year economic and social changes will affect where their funding goes.

More than just Congress, federal agencies rely on the survey for implementation of the programs and priorities of the federal government. Local governments use the data as well. In fact, this data drives state and local policy decisions that encourage economic growth, the recruitment and retention of industries, and economic sustainability. On top of that, businesses also use data from the American Community Survey to make decisions based on costs and demographics.


man and woman talking in a crowded place

image via: pixabay

As you can see, the American Community Survey is used as an important tool by much of the American society. Our founding fathers knew what they were doing when they wrote the Constitution; they were some smart people indeed. They required that a mandatory census be employed every ten years to count the population and obtain other important demographic data.

While they were on the right track, every ten years is very conservative. The American Community Survey gives the American government and people access to valuable information every year. This allows governments, federal and local, to make better decisions based on accurate and updated data. This allows businesses to better prepare for what is to come in their respective markets by looking at trending tides and market information. It also allows policy-makers to develop policies that encourage economic growth.

With all of this in mind, it seems like this particular annual survey is very important to a lot of important people in this country. Thus, it should be treated as such and receive the funding it needs to be its best. The survey would be no good for anyone if the data was inaccurate or sloppy. With that being said, Congress should always keep the American Community Survey going strong, and the American people should do their civic duty and partake in the survey with honest answers.

This survey is the primary check for how well the government is doing. It tells us how rich we are, how poor we are, who is thriving, who is suffering, where people work, what kind of training people need, who needs food stamps, who has access to healthcare, what languages people speak, and much more. It should not be looked at as the government butting its nose into people’s homes.

It should be looked at as the government trying to do the best job it can by obtaining the information it needs to make important decisions. After all, the survey helps Congress decide what to do with over $400 billion dollars of federal funds each year.

This survey is one of America’s competitive advantages. Knowing what is happening in our economy is so important to keeping our economy running smoothly. The reason the financial crisis of 2008 did not quite become another Great Depression is because of the more current economic data we have today due to the American Community Survey.

Leave a Comment